What are recovery boots supposed to do anyways?
There is quite a bit of craze surrounding the use of “recovery boots” or “compression boots” as they are commonly referred to. However, these types of devices are used to deliver intermittent pneumatic compression to an individual, and this type of therapy has been historically used in medical settings to help those with deep vein thrombosis, venous thromboembolism, and to help individuals recovery post-surgery. In the past 10 years, however, there have been many companies that have come out with compression/recovery boots marketed as a recovery-enhancing tool for athletes. Yet, how are they supposed to help athletes?
Well, the theory behind them is that the intermittent compressive forces elicited by the boots are supposed to help stimulate blood flow back to the heart, which could help facilitate a quicker movement of waste products in the limbs back to the central system for removal. This should, in theory, enhance and/or facilitate faster recovery post-strenuous exercise. Yet, research has only of late begun to study the effects of intermittent pneumatic compression for recovery in athletes. So, what does this science say?
What is the science behind them?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a ton of research done quite yet, but of the research that has been done, it is equivocal at best. In other words, it’s very mixed, with some research showing there may be some small benefits for recovery (1,2). However, a bit more research has found little to no benefit of intermittent pneumatic compression for enhancing recovery (3-6). In one of the first studies that investigated the effects of intermittent pneumatic compression on recovery following strenuous exercise, there was no significant difference between the use of intermittent pneumatic compression and a resting control condition on any measures of recovery of muscular performance 24, 48, and 72 hours post-strenuous exercise (6).
What does this mean for YOU as an endurance athlete or coach?
So, it seems that compression/recovery boots may not be as great as they are marketed to be. Albeit, a major limitation of many of the studies that have been done thus far is the small number of participants, but despite this, it seems that there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that compression/recovery boots actually work. It is possible that some of the “reported” benefits from those that swear by them is due to the placebo effect as this is a very real phenomenon among athletes. If an athlete firmly believes in it, there is a much greater likelihood it will do something for them even if there is no real physiological benefit to it.
However, I am a firm believer in trying to decipher the wacky world of quackery and marketing that lures us into spending our hard-earned money on things that haven’t been shown to truly work, and instead trying to opt for items, modalities, and methods that do actually have some real evidence to their effectiveness. When it comes to recovery, foam rolling is at the top of my list of modalities that actually work and have a bit more evidence to support its’ benefits. I wrote up a piece on The Science of Foam Rolling last year, and this would be a great place to start if you want to learn more about this method of enhancing recovery. The nice thing about foam rolling is that they are cheap ($20-$50 and you can get just about any foam roller you want) and they can be used as warm-up tools before training sessions. It’s a win-win!
Compression/recovery boots are expensive, but don’t have nearly enough hard evidence to justify their purchase, particularly if you’re concerned about money. In the end though, if money isn’t an issue, and you want to try compression/recovery boots out for yourself, go for it! There is likely no penalty on recovery or performance to using them, but just know they might not do much for you if anything at all. I have tried them before myself, and outside of noticing anything “earth-shattering” about my recovery, they did feel nice on my legs while I was sitting on the couch.
1. Zelikovski A, Kaye C, Fink G, Spitzer S, Shapiro Y. The effects of the modified intermittent sequential pneumatic device (MISPD) on exer- cise performance following an exhaustive exercise bout. Br J Sports Med. 1993;27(4):255–259.
2. Wiener A, Mizrahi J, Verbitsky O. Enhancement of tibialis anterior recovery by intermittent sequential pneumatic compression of the legs. Basic Appl Myol. 2001;11(2):87–90.
3. O’Donnell S, Driller MW. The effect of intermittent sequential pneumatic compression on recovery between exercise bouts in well-trained triathletes. J Sci Cycl. 2015;4(3):19.
4. Northey JM, Rattray B, Argus CK, Etxebarria N, Driller MW. Vascular occlusion and sequential compression for recovery after resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2016;30(2):533–539.
5. Overmayer RG, Driller MW. Pneumatic compression fails to improve performance recovery in trained cyclists. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 2017;13(4):490-5.
6. Cochrane DJ, Booker HR, Mundel T, Barnes MJ. Does intermittent pneumatic leg compression enhance muscle recovery after strenuous eccentric exercise?. International journal of sports medicine. 2013 Nov;34(11):969-74.
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Happy training, racing, and recovering!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS